Will the Large Hadron Collider Destroy the Earth?

Some people believe that CERN's new Large Hadron Collider will create black holes that will destroy the Earth.

Filed under Conspiracies, General Science

Skeptoid #109
July 15, 2008
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Imagine a $10 billion underground ring-shaped tunnel, 27 km in circumference, so big that it stretches through both France and Switzerland: One ring to rule them all, the new Large Hadron Collider at the European Organization for Nuclear Research, better known as CERN, scheduled to come online around about August 2008.

A collider is the basic tool of particle physics. You take a stream of particles, accelerate them to really high kinetic energy levels, and slam them into a target. Depending on the experiment, all sorts of exotic things happen. Most experiments are to create new particles predicted by theory or to examine their behavior. The Large Hadron Collider, or LHC, has two beams traveling in opposite directions around the 27 km circle, each accelerated to 7 TeV (trillion electron volts) of energy and traveling at 99.999999% of the speed of light, held in place by powerful magnets. All around the ring are different experiment stations. To perform an experiment, you turn on the experimental detector and use the magnets to collide the beams into each other head-on inside your detector, creating 600 million 14 TeV collisions per second. That's a pretty high energy level, and we expect to learn all sorts of new and exotic things about the universe. Most famously, we hope to find the theorized Higgs boson, the particle that creates mass; but the collider's various experiments will produce knowledge that will permeate virtually every science we have.

As you may have heard by now, some people have voiced concerns that particle collisions from the LHC will create tiny black holes. Black holes have such intense gravity that they consume everything around them, even light. And so, within a fraction of a second, this tiny black hole will consume the collider itself, France, Switzerland, and then the entire Earth, presumably followed shortly thereafter by our whole solar system. Clearly not a fear to be taken lightly.

The best known opposition to the Large Hadron Collider comes in the form of a much publicized lawsuit, filed in Hawaii by two individuals, science writer Luis Sancho and retired nuclear safety officer Walter L. Wagner, against the US Department of Energy, Fermilab, CERN, the National Science Foundation and Does 1-100. The lawsuit presents affidavits from the plaintiffs and five other individuals, stating their opinion that dangerous black holes could be formed and seeking to block operation of the collider until these fears can be adequately studied. It seems a reasonable precaution, given how incredibly gigantic and powerful the LHC is, and how Biblical the scale of the destruction it might wreak.

Yet, the Large Hadron Collider is but a donut compared to what the United States' Superconducting Supercollider would have been. The SSC, as it was known until its cancellation in 1993, would have had a circumference of 87 km and a beam energy of 30 TeV — that's more than three times the size of the LHC and more than twice the energy. And even the mighty SSC was but a Cheerio compared to the hypothetical Very Large Hadron Collider proposed by Fermilab, with a circumference of 105 to 650 km, and a beam energy of 40 to 200 TeV! So when you compare the LHC to other possible colliders, you realize that yeah it's crazy big, but it's not that big and it's nowhere near the energy levels that are possible. It's certainly not the "ultimate doomsday device" that some fearmongering detractors are making it out to be.

And, even after looking at other possible larger colliders, if you're still concerned that 14 TeV represents the pinnacle of danger, just look at the naturally occurring collisions happening all around us every day. Cosmic rays in the LHC's energy range are hitting the atmosphere constantly, and have been for 4 billion years, creating the same type of collisions that the collider will produce. Some of these, called Ultra High Energy Cosmic Rays, have been measured at over 1020 electron volts, ten million times as energetic as the LHC's maximum energy. While that sounds like a staggering amount, it's about the kinetic energy of a baseball thrown at 100 kph. That's a lot for a single proton, but it's hardly the destruction of the planet.

So one way to think of this is that the Large Hadron Collider is just an impotent little Spaghetti-O compared to the greatest supercollider of them all: The universe. Nature's supercollider has been going for billions of years at energies millions of times higher than human scientists can dream about. So far, neither Earth nor any of the other planets, nor even any super-dense astronomical bodies like neutron stars, have suffered from particle collisions. In fact, according to Dr. Brian Cox at CERN, the universe conducts the equivalent of ten trillion lifetime runs of the LHC every second, and has been doing so for billions of years, with not a single observable consequence.

The main reason is that micro black holes of the type that particle collisions can create behave very differently than the giant supernova-sized black holes you see in movies. They don't eat anything. Instead, they explode with a tiny little micro pop. Most people have heard of Hawking radiation, which is emitted by black holes. As large black holes eat stuff, they also evaporate away as Hawking radiation. The smaller the black hole, the more energetic this evaporation. For a micro black hole, this evaporation happens at essentially the same instant it is created, or at least, this is what is theorized: Specifically, they would decay instantaneously into hadron jets and high PT leptons, which are one thing that we actually hope to see with the LHC. As for Sancho and Wagner's concerns, they are not the first people to conceive of these events; and whether they like to think so or not, the subject has already been studied — exhaustively, in fact — and it's been part of the plans since many years before they contrived their little lawsuit. In fact, four years before Sancho and Wagner filed their lawsuit, CERN completed its report based on decades of research into the safety of the collider, which concludes:

We consider all such objects that have been theoretically envisaged, such as negatively charged strangelets, gravitational black holes, and magnetic monopoles. We find no basis for any conceivable threat.

$2/mo $5/mo $10/mo One time

As a backup in case their black hole alarmism should fail, Sancho and Wagner also proposed a danger from strangelets created by the LHC. Strangelets are unusual particles composed of an eclectic mixture of similar numbers of up, down, and strange quarks. This so-called strange matter is one candidate for the dark matter in the universe. The theoretical threat from strangelets would be that their negative charge would attract and consume the positively charged nuclei of ordinary matter. However this supposition is based on a long chain of "ifs", a chain in which every link is broken. For one thing, most calculations of strange matter show that strangelets would have a positive charge. For another, strangelets can only be stable enough to exist at extremely low temperatures; and their creation in a particle collision would result in extremely high temperatures in which the strangelets must immediately decay. And even if somehow a collision did create a very cold, stable, negatively charged strangelet, it could only grow so long as its charge remained negative, which of course would no longer be the case after it had consumed a handful of positively charged nuclei; and it would then become a harmless particle of ordinary matter.

Unfortunately, the mass media isn't doing anyone any favors. News outlets continue to promote alarmism with headlines like this one from MSNBC: "Doomsday Under Debate", or this one from CNN: "Some Fear Debut of Powerful Atom-Smasher", claiming "The safety of the powerful collider has been debated for years". Absolutely untrue. There is no "debate" among knowledgeable particle physicists. There is plenty of fear mongering and ignorance, and also plenty of "cooler heads" who have been given this misinformation and are now issuing reasonable-sounding warnings like "the potential risks are so high that we should step back and investigate these concerns." These people advocating caution have neither valid theoretical arguments nor any information to refute the physicists' observations, and don't appear to have taken even the most fundamental steps to inform themselves about the issues they are so passionately pursuing. Instead, they make apocalyptic anti-science web sites like SaneScience.org and LHCFacts.org to spread misinformation.

You don't have "two sides" to science. There is no "listening to both sides". Science is not philosophy or opinion. Science consists of what we've learned so far. And one thing that we've learned so far, and validated with billions of years of universe-scale observation, is that a particle collider represents no plausible danger, and offers astonishing potential for furthering our knowledge. Hang onto your hats, because the Large Hadron Collider is going to bring unprecedented advances in medicine, clean energy production, unified field theory, computing, and astrophysics. Get on board for the ride!

Brian Dunning

© 2008 Skeptoid Media, Inc. Copyright information

References & Further Reading

Blaizot, J.P., Iliopoulos, J., Madsen, J., Ross, G.G., Sonderegger, P., Specht, H.J. "Study of potentially dangerous events during heavy-ion collisions at the LHC: Report of the LHC Safety Study Group." CERN 2003–001. European Organization for Nuclear Research, 28 Feb. 2003. Web. 1 Jun. 2008. <http://doc.cern.ch/yellowrep/2003/2003-001/p1.pdf>

Cox, Brian. "Brian Cox on CERN's supercollider." TED Ideas Worth Spreading. The Sapling Foundation, 29 Apr. 2008. Web. 10 May. 2008. <http://www.ted.com/index.php/talks/brian_cox_on_cern_s_supercollider.html>

Dar, A., De Rujula, A., Heinz, U. "Will relativistic heavy-ion colliders destroy our planet?" Physics Letters B. 16 Dec. 1999, Volume 470, Number 1: 142-148.

Hawking, Stephen. "Particle creation by black holes." Communications in Mathematical Physics. 1 Aug. 1975, Volume 43, Number 3: 199-220.

Jaffe, R. L., Busza, W., Wilczek, F., Sandweiss, J. "Review of speculative “disaster scenarios” at RHIC." Reviews of Modern Physics. 1 Oct. 2000, Volume 72, Number 4: 1125-1140.

Seife, Charles. "Fly's Eye Spies Highs in Cosmic Rays' Demise." Science. 19 May 2000, Volume 288, No. 5469: 1147.

Reference this article:
Dunning, B. "Will the Large Hadron Collider Destroy the Earth?" Skeptoid Podcast. Skeptoid Media, Inc., 15 Jul 2008. Web. 29 Jul 2014. <http://skeptoid.com/episodes/4109>

Discuss!

10 most recent comments | Show all 254 comments

I am happy for Brian to remove this once Macky reads it.
I personally detest the notion of spoiling your having fun now you have agreed to divorce yourself from quacks and continue in a fair dissent/speculator invitee as you claimed.

But in this case you have goofed.

The conditions where particles can coalesce (by universal cooling) to protons and these subsequently colliding at high energies so as to produce particles and fields only postulated (in the last 50 years) was near the big bang (on a universal scale). But the universe had cooled enough to do so.

Observing quarks (published claims, SLAC @ 1970 and quark gluon interaction CERN @2000) is an easier task but, the same qualms you have of perfectly detectable and observable protons and ions of massive energies that we see interacting with our detectors have been seen interacting with the "matter of our detectors" since we started noticing cosmics.

The universe had these conditions, still has these conditions and they are observable should they occur and certainly since the events your prose is based on would be obvious on a daily basis as supernovae in the field of astronomy.

But a matter for great discussion elsewhere is the production and separation of spontaneously produced positron-electron pairs from nothing and their Separation and tell tale events (very weak may I add). A very happy Prof Hawking would be happy to have confirmation of this as it would confirm him a Nobel (you only get it while you live).

H van der Gaast, sin city, Oz
October 16, 2013 12:44am

I certainly have made no agreements of any sort to "divorce myself from quacks". I have explained clearly to Skeptoid my position on several health issues, and have not indulged at any time in quackery of any sort, despite your continued reference to it.

I also do not see why it has any relevance to this thread, or the LHC.

I am a fair voice of dissent on some FEW issues, and as an invitee to Skeptoid continue to raise questions of critical thinking that appear on occasion to be absent from those who seem to mistakenly believe they are in fact engaging in it.

I would also like to acknowledge your superior grasp of particle physics over mine (non-existent), however your interesting and undoubtedly learned post cannot possibly take into account a time right at the first split second of an unimaginably powerful expansion of force/energy/matter/whatever
that would make a supernova seem miniscule by comparison.

Those particular first moments in time have never happened again (in this round of Universal expansion) but some of those particles have now been produced in the LHC which belong to that time, an unnatural state of existence.

What is measured and discovered today can only provide speculation re these previously non-existent particles, and the intent to ramp up the power of the LHC will no doubt produce more as-yet undiscovered particles which may have a certain property that has never been anticipated.

I hope I have goofed, but only time will tell, until they stop.

Macky, Auckland
October 17, 2013 12:08am

don't be silly not enough energy in the system need a lot more to do that.

andy, glasgow
February 28, 2014 6:59pm

I am curious as to how much more energy would be needed to destroy the Earth. Would the LHC going haywire and banging two rocks together do it? Maybe adding a cherry bomb to the equation would make it happen?

Henry, Minnesota USA
February 28, 2014 7:45pm

My posts of Oct 11 and 15 2013 provide quotes from STFU about the general nature of some of the experiments they are engaged in, their uncertainty, and the plain facts that they are conducting reproductions of the conditions of the first moments after the Big Bang, and "conjuring" particles into existence that have not been around since that time.

They have clearly stated the uncertainty of aspects of such experiments, and with intended increases in power of the LHC, will recreate as yet unknown but more massive particles into existence.

I have never asserted that the LHC would destroy the Earth, however the previously unknown particles that are brought into existence from these experiments may have a property that has never been anticipated by the boffins who are engaged in this scientific version of Russian roulette, and there is no guarantee that said particles may not cause some damage to the LHC, or near environment.

These particles existed an estimated 13.7 billion years ago, and their recreated existence is the creation of UNnatural conditions which do not occur anywhere in the Universe today.

There is no guarantee of their safety, and no public mandate for such experiments to be conducted by a relatively few scientists.

Improved evacuation procedures and blast doors etc are among the upgrades carried out in the LHC over the years, and which can only heighten public concerns that the LHC Big Bang experiments certainly carry some element of risk.

Macky, Auckland
March 1, 2014 1:16am

"My posts of Oct 11 and 15 2013 provide quotes from STFU about the general nature of some of the experiments they are engaged in, their uncertainty, and the plain facts that they are conducting reproductions of the conditions of the first moments after the Big Bang, and "conjuring" particles into existence that have not been around since that time."

Sorry, the STFC, not the STFU.

Macky, Auckland
March 5, 2014 7:00pm

Happy to pop in from time to time..

No,Macky, you position is now entirely incorrect.

What is happening is a contained experiment to recreate conditions so that we can observe perfectly natural things happening then and now (and all the time in between) so we can observe whether our position on matter wrt current theory holds.

I would like to add that the first authors to verifiably claim to observation or the first to have postulated a methodology for observing an evaporating black hole will get a Nobel prize in the right town. It better be a bit later as there are a few being discussed right now for possible Nobels over the next few years.

The subjectivity in your safety/risk assessment argument needs not be discussed any further.

Henk van der Gaast, Sin city Oz
March 11, 2014 7:43pm

Nice to see you again Henk.

"No,Macky, you position is now entirely incorrect."

I certainly hope so. I've often stated on here that I hope I'm proved wrong.
Time will tell, assuming we are still in a position to assess said proof.

"What is happening is a contained experiment to recreate conditions so that we can observe perfectly natural things happening then and now.."

The experiment is contained, for now.
There is no 100% guarantee that will continue, as STFC clearly indicates "Sometimes finding out we were completely wrong etc "

There is nothing perfectly natural about re-creating conditions that only existed 13.7 billion years ago, and have never existed since that time.

Whatever "subjectivity" or other big words may mean, the LHC has proven itself not to be completely safe from engineering failure, from incompetence by engineering review boards, and by further strengthening and installation of blast doors, and improved evacuation procedures.

From the nature, specifically the UN-nature regarding the recreation of the first moments after the Big Bang, the STFC comments say it all in a nutshell, "subjective or not".

Macky, Auckland
March 11, 2014 10:57pm

Macky: I survived one year of the wirld having ended by the LHC.
Seriously, there is MASSive problems here.

Bill, Canberra
March 12, 2014 12:52am

Does that automatically guarantee your survival tomorrow, Bill ?

What problems ? Remember I have never asserted the LHC may end the whole world, but there is no guarantee that certain new particles "conjured" ( STFC word not mine ) into existence for the first time since the Big Bang do not possess some unanticipated property that causes massive damage to the Collider and its personnel.

Macky, Auckland
March 12, 2014 4:22am

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